Friday, September 7, 2012

Pacifism or Passivism?

A facebook friend recently posted this: "Si vis pacem, para b̶e̶l̶l̶u̶m̶ pacem", which made me think some about pacifism.

Pacifism is often understood as an opposition to war. That seems misleading, though. You aren't really against war. What you're really against is taking up arms yourself. Certainly you're also against the other guy taking up arms, and presumably you're against the other guy displaying provocations besides taking up arms, but everyone is against that. It's not a distinguishing feature of pacifism. The sense in which you can reasonably say that "pacifists are people who are against war" implies a meaning of the phrase "against war" that you could apply to just about anyone. I am "against war" as much as pacifists are, but I don't usually think of myself as a pacifist.

What pacificsts are really against, as I said earlier, is taking up arms yourself in either war or peace. Being "against war" is like being against mortality or the fact that I can't fly. Sure I'm against that stuff, but it doesn't tell you much about how I conduct myself. As a philosophical identifier, it seems like pacifism oughta communicate how one conducts themselves. Given a war, a pacifist wants to be a passive participant.

One might call such a position passivism, rather than pacifism.

Passivism may make sense in a lot of cases because you avoid false positives when diagnosing aggressors. This is particularly advantageous in the murkier world of the war on terror. If I am a passivist my passivity is going to keep a conflict from starting in the case that I misdiagnose a terrorist threat.

But when you frame it as "passivism" rather than "pacifism" the costs of this view become obvious as well. What if there is war? Of course I want peace, I don't want war, but what if a war finds it's way to me anyway? Passivity doesn't stop the war. Passivity only brings on actual peace (which is the goal, of course) in the terrible sense of conceding defeat to an aggressor. That's not really peace at all. What's worse is that under a policy of passivity, bellicose governments will tend to dominate the planet, right? Bellicose governments are by definition not passivist, and governments (or individuals and voluntary communities, for you an-caps) that are passivists will by definition lose to bellicose governments, so we're going to live in a more bellicose world.

At this point I know Bob Murphy will tell me I need to listen to his video about warlords that Walter Block likes so much. And I should, and I will (Bob Murphy is not the one that posted that status message).

But at least now Bob and I are talking about an acutal difference of opinion or expectation about how the world will work.

That's only possible when you realize that "pacifism" is a total misnomer and that what we're really talking about is "passivism" - specifically whether passivism should be some kind of conditional or unconditional policy (everyone - even Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler - were conditional passivists, so presumably the entire human race agrees that passivism is sometimes appropriate).


  1. ?? You have said you do not fault the US government right now for blowing up people with drones. I don't know what you want to call that, but "pacifism" doesn't work.

    This isn't an issue of, "Hey we all wish we lived in a world that didn't require slaughtering foreigners, but that's just not in the cards." A pacifist is against war even if it means other things might thereby be put in jeopardy because of this prohibition.

    1. No, to repeat the argument of the post, a pacifist is against taking an active role in a war. Hence "passivist". Everybody is "against war". It's too vague. And we don't always decide if we're in a war. So because of the choice of others we're in a war with terrorists. So whether or not I'm "against war" is a moot point. I am, but it's happening to me anyway. That way of thinking about it is obfuscatory - that's my point.

      It's better to say that people are "passivist" because whether or not you remain passive is something you have control over. Whether or not you are in the middle of a war is not. That's something people can thrust upon you.

  2. Allow me to tell a brief story that illustrates the difference.

    Often pacifists are asked what they would do if a gun were drawn on them. A pacifist (Quaker) family friend of mine was carjacked several years ago. The passive reaction would have been to just hand over his keys. But instead, he did something very active. As pacifism is a spiritual discipline for him, he took a spiritual approach in that moment: he somehow managed to center himself and open himself to divine leadings (apologies for the jargon). And then he opened his mouth and began to speak. I don't know what was said (and he probably doesn't remember either). But I do know that the encounter ended with the assailant crying on his shoulder. Not only was the car not stolen, but the carjacker had some kind of a life-changing moment.
    Daring to engage with his attacker was not a passive move. On the contrary, it was very courageous, and sprang from the underlying root of his pacifism: really and truly considering the worth of others.

    You may point out that this is irrelevant to questions of warfare. At the cost of lengthening this comment even further: pacifism in international relations works the same way as in this story. Instead of shrinking from violence, it leads to proactively engaging with the "enemy," hopefully long before conflict even arises. Pacifist groups are working their butts off, all the time, to prevent war by figuring out what people need and how to provide it. Wars between rich countries can happen, but not nearly as easily as wars where at least one country has desperate people. A person who declares themselves pacifist and then sits back passively, instead of actively dedicating themselves to preventing conflict, is really only practising half of the discipline.

    1. Cool story Rebecca. I think it's very useful for people to realize that the world isn't actually divided into "good guys" and "bad guys."

    2. Nice story, but I think this is a semantic point your raising. I mean "passive" with respect to violence, of course. I chose it because it's a homonym and got the point across. Clearly there are lots of types of non-violence that could be practiced (some passive and some active). If I was confusing in the terminology, I'm sorry - I tried to be as clear as I could.

      I'm obviously not trying to say that pacifists/passivists are wimps or anything like that.

      re: "On the contrary, it was very courageous, and sprang from the underlying root of his pacifism: really and truly considering the worth of others."

      True, but that's the root of other views too. It is really and truly considering the worth of others that leads people to serve in the military as well. In other words, those root values don't just lead to one position.

      As for your application to international relations, that's all well and good but of course that's not an exclusively pacifist thing either.

    3. I think I may have not made myself as clear as I hoped. My point was not that pacifists have different motivation from others or some kind of monopoly on compassion or international humanitarianism. My point was that pacifism is not merely being opposed to violence, as tempting as it may be to believe that war would end if everyone would just stop signing up. It is committing ones' self to doing whatever one person can to to reduce the call for war.

      Personally, I don't consider myself a pacifist. But I am lucky to know several who have dedicated themselves this way, so I wanted to explain a little of my respect for them.

  3. Dude, are you following me around? I literally had somebody use the word "passivism" yesterday, and I asked "don't you mean "pacifism". In any case, passivism is a far cry from pacifism. In any case, pacifism denounces ALL violence for ANY means. If I were to attempt to punch a passivist and a pacifist in the face, the difference is that the passivist would defend himself, the pacifist would not.

    1. Hey, let me say "in any case" one more time. In any case ... There, I feel better.

    2. That's not really how I'm using passivist.

      I mean what you mean when you say "pacifist".

      I'm just trying to highlight that a state of war is something that can be thrust upon you. There are lots of people that are opposed to war.

      "Passivist" draws attention to the behavior that is really being advocated: passivity (w.r.t. to violence - see Rebecca's comment for active non-violence... all I really mean is non-violence) in the face of war or violence.

      Does that emphasis I'm trying to make make sense? Pacifism as being "against war" strikes me as being relatively trivial. Almost everyone is against war. Sometimes we find ourselves in one anyway. We're against war, but oh well. Fine lot of good that did us. What pacifists really mean is that not only are they against war (lots of people are), but they actually respond in an unusual way when war comes around.

      That distinction seems very important to me, and it really focuses on both what is noble and what is very wrong about pacifism.

  4. "A pacifist is against war even if it means other things might thereby be put in jeopardy because of this prohibition."

    Other things and other people.

  5. Daniel, OK I re-read your post and I at least (think I) understand what you are getting at. So let me clarify something: If I call myself a pacifist, I don't merely mean, "I personally am not going to pick up a gun to stop bad guys from hurting me." I also mean that I don't support "my government" acting in my name by doing the same thing, and I certainly don't support them taking money from me to buy bombs to use against foreigners.

    Since you don't object to this at a general level (you might object to particular uses of the bombs etc.), I don't think it is right for you to say, "We're all pacifists." No, we're not, not in the way everyone else uses the term.

    1. Perhaps this helps:

      We are (practically) all pacifists in that we are all opposed to war (as the aggressors or the aggressees).

      Sometimes that doesn't matter and there is a war.

      OK, whether we are against it or not is a moot point now. We are in a war.

      "Pacifism" really specifies how - given a war - a particular person acts, not what they feel about war.

      People who call themselves pacifists mean that they act passively, whether there is a war or there is not a war.

      I am not a "pacifist" by this definition. I am probably a "pacifist" or pretty damn close to one if you simply mean that I'm against war.

  6. Bryan Caplan at times seems to argue that abjectly surrendering and being defeated by the enemy is often the best option. In specific cases (Nazis, Soviets) he says that doesn't work well, but on the other hand most smaller countries that tried fighting them seem to have been screwed either way.

  7. The Russians had the best solution for pacifists. They would put them, unarmed, in front of their soldiers who would fight.

    Only a greedy shelfish pascifist would object to being a human shield. And, where is the loss then?

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